Story By Peter Stampher
Burning ambitions at Whatcom Community College are attempting to slow climate change by encouraging divestment from fossil fuel companies. Whatcom’s participation in the international divestment campaign is directed by its Sustainability Club.
A divestment is an act opposite that of an investment. The fossil fuel divestment campaign is asking for colleges and universities to withdraw their funds from investments in stocks and bonds of fossil fuel companies.
Whatcom’s Sustainability Club recently joined Western Washington University in the international divestment campaign, organized through the website 350.org, on April 19.
According to the website, the premise of the campaign is that it is unethical for universities to educate the future generation with funds from investments in companies that jeopardize the world this generation will inhabit. The Sustainability Club believes that promoting divestment from fossil fuels, and investment in renewable energy resources, is something fits Whatcom’s nature, said Victor Bahzad, the president of the Sustainability Club.
The campaign took off after 350.org’s “Do the Math” tour in November 2012, said Edward Ury, an organizer of Western’s divestment campaign and an intern at Power Past Coal, an organization protesting coal transportation and exports in the Northwest.
This tour, which was led by Bill McKibben, an environmentalist speaker associated with 350.org, was designed to educate the public about the numbers of climate change. A key point stated during the tour was that fossil fuel companies have almost five times more fossil fuel resources in their reserves than the amount that can be burned without causing irreparable environmental damage.
The 21 city tour sparked interest in divestment from fossil fuels across the nation. “Divestment has existed before but it really exploded last fall,” Ury said.
Western’s campaign recently staged a flash mob demonstration in Red Square where participants held up signs and orange squares representing the divestment movement, Ury said. A study group which will research where university funds are invested, and how to go about divesting, is also being sanctioned by the college, he said.
“Getting universities and colleges to divest will galvanize the social movement,”said Bahzad. This movement is “not just limited to universities. Churches and other social institutions are encouraged to divest,” he said.
The campaign at Whatcom is still just starting, said Naomi Gibson, an organizer of Whatcom’s divestment campaign and an intern at Power Past Coal.
Whatcom is partially funded by the state. The Whatcom Community College Foundation helps raise money to fill the void in funding. The foundation is a non-profit organization and provides private support for Whatcom initiatives including student scholarships, faculty and staff development, and college initiatives.
To increase its funds, the foundation invests in managed stock portfolios, a collection of stocks investments spread across multiple assets to promote stability, said Mary Vermillion, the Public Information Officer at Whatcom.
Bahzad said the Sustainability Club is still just beginning to investigate Whatcom’s investments. It is still unclear if Whatcom has funds invested in fossil fuels, Gibson said. “We are still just figuring out what questions to ask.”
“One of the next steps is to make a presentation to the Sustainability Committee so they can better understand [the divestment campaign],” said Courtenay Chadwell-Gatz, the advisor of the Sustainability Club.
Vermillion said Whatcom’s foundation is sensitive to social issues.
Divestment campaigns have promoted social change in the past. One notable instance was the South African divestment campaign in the 1980s. At this time South Africa was a racially segregated state and the morality of its government was questioned by the international community.
A series of embargos opened the door for private corporations to voluntarily divest. Strong media exposure and civil protests further pressured corporations to pull their funds from South African branches and subsidiaries. This crippled the South African economy and helped cause reforms leading towards equality.
Bahzad said the divestment from fossil fuels campaign is modeled after the South African divestment campaign. “We are taking that idea and applying it to fossil fuels.”